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“God’s Restorative Justice”

There is a phrase in Paul’s letters that is notoriously difficult to translate.  It occurs at key moments in major letters like Romans and 2 Corinthians.  Most often the phrase is translated into English as “the righteousness of God.” cropped-p52.gif

Notice how the New American Standard Version renders Romans 1:16-17: 

                 16For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

            17For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written” But the righteous man shall live by faith.”

Now Romans 3:21-22 (NASV):

            21But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets,

            22even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; . . .

Now I must admit that I like the NASV translation; I have preached from it for years.  It is probably the most literal translation into English we have.  If you have the time, interest, and skill in doing a word study, it is an important translation to have around. Unfortunately, it tends to obscure the meaning of important phrases.  People without a background in Scripture may be left scratching their heads.

So what does “the righteousness of God” refer to?  It is an important question.  Without getting that straight you can’t make heads or tails out of what Paul is saying in these key passages.  Scholars, by the way, have been debating the significance of this phrase in these letters for centuries.  So it is no easy task.

When we were translating THE VOICE, we spent a great deal of time working through Paul’s language in these passages.  We ended up with what I think is a faithful and helpful rendering.  Here is The Voice translation of Romans 1:16-17:

                 16For I am not the least bit embarrassed about the gospel.  I won’t shy away from it, because it is God’s power to save every person who believes: first the Jew, and then the non-Jew.  17You see, in the good news, God’s restorative justice is revealed.  And as we will see, it begins with and ends in faith.  As the Scripture declares: “By faith the just will obtain life.”  

 Now Romans 3:21-22:

             21But now for the good news: God’s restorative justice has entered the world, independent of the law.  Both the law and the prophets told us this day would come.  22This redeeming justice comes through the faithfulness of Jesus, the Anointed, who makes salvation a reality for all who believe—without the slightest partiality.

Now, we think this translation may help shed light on what Paul is getting at here in these verses.  Still we decided to put some commentary with it to help people think through it.

The phrases “God’s restorative justice” and “this redeeming justice” refer to the same reality.  For Paul the good news—the gospel—is located in history in the incarnation and sacrificial death of Jesus. By “God’s restorative justice” Paul means first that justice and rightness belong to God; they reflect his character.  God, and no one else, determines what is right and what is just.  But as we all know, character is reflected in action.  “Justice” and “righteousness” are nouns of action.  This means that God’s justice must express itself in some way.  So it is in the nature of a just God to act, to restore, to redeem, to repair the world.  This God did primarily through His Son, Jesus the Anointed, the Liberating King. 

Paul would not shy away from these bold claims.  The gospel is power.  It is God’s power to restore the world to what it can and ought to be.  But how do we get in on what God is doing?  Well, Paul says, it begins with and ends in faith.  It begins with God’s faithfulness to His creation, then His covenant people.  It continues with Jesus’ faithfulness to God to enter our broken realm to give Himself in love to begin its repair.  It ends with us, hearing and responding in faith and following faithfully in his footsteps. 

Now read the passage again with these things in mind.  Do you see it?  Did you get it?  Recognize that from the beginning God has been at work to restore our world so badly damaged by sin and corruption.

Saul a.k.a. Paul

We encounter Paul the apostle in the NT under two names: Saul and Paul. There’s a common misunderstanding about the two names. Often you hear that Saul the Pharisee changed his name to Paul when he came to faith in Jesus. At first glance that seems reasonable because there are biblical people whose names are changed at significant moments in the story. For example, Abram’s name is changed to Abraham when he puts faith in the covenant that God was making with him (Genesis 12-22). Jacob’s name is changed to Israel ( = one who wrestles with God) right before he meets his brother Esau again. Jesus gives Simon the name Peter (Cepha = rock). So there is a tradition of name changes that correspond to important moments in a person’s life. Also, when we first encounter Saul, he’s persecuting the church and standing by as Stephen is stoned (Acts 7). Later, however, in Acts 13-28 the missionary, apostle is referred to as Paul. Conclusion: he changed his name when he accepted Jesus as Messiah. Sounds reasonable, right?
Paul
On closer investigation, however, we find out this is not the case. First, Saul is converted or called in Acts 9. He’s baptized and engages in apparently a significant period of Christian discipleship and ministry under the name of Saul. In Acts 13 Saul along with several others are leaders in the church at Antioch when the Holy Spirit sets them a part for the Gentile mission. In Acts 13:6 Saul is called Paul for the first time (“But Saul, who was also known as Paul, . . . “) on the island of Cyprus. For the rest of the book and in all of his letters he is referred to as Paul. So what is going on?

Saul was a Pharisaic Jew of the tribe of Benjamin. If Jewish tradition were followed–and there is no reason to think it wasn’t–he was given his Jewish name on the day of his circumcision. So Saul was his Jewish name, the name of Israel’s first king. But Saul may well have been a Roman citizen as well (that’s Acts testimony) which means that he needed a Roman name. Perhaps Paul was taken because it was a family name or the name of someone who helped provide citizenship to his family, we don’t know. But the name Paulos in Greek means something like “little fellow.” I suggest that what happens is this: when Saul is around Jews, he uses his Jewish name. But when Saul is around Greeks and Romans, he uses his Roman name. In Antioch where the Jewish population of Christ-believers was significant it made sense that he’d use his Jewish name. But during the Gentile mission, he encountered primarily, well . . . Gentiles. So he used his Roman name then. But there’s another thing. When you take the Jewish name Saul and render it in Greek it sounds like this: Saulos. And the word saulos in Greek means “the sultry walk of a prostitute.” No wonder Paul didn’t want to be introduced like that.

By the way, the same thing happens today. One of my best friends is a Jewish rabbi. His Jewish name is Shimon (Simon). When he is around Jews, particularly at the synagogue, they call him Shimon. But his “American” name, the name on his birth certificate, is Stuart. That’s how I know him.

As you move across cultures, you may find that your name means something odd or even scandalous in another language. That’s true for another friend of mine. His Vietnamese name when properly pronounced in Vietnamese is a really, really bad word in English. So he allows all his non-Vietnamese friends to call him by another, more acceptable name.

Cross-cultural work calls for compromise and creativity. In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul said I have become all things to all people so that I can by all means save some.

Tolkien, Jackson, and Paul

I saw the movie “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” the night of my birthday.    We entered a theater in Houston, sat at small tables, and waiters took our orders during the previews.  When the food arrived, the previews were over and in a few minutes the theater lights dimmed and for the next 2 ½ hours we were transported to Middle Earth.the hobbit unexpected journey

The Hobbit is a wonderful movie. I’d recommend it.  Here is the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SDnYMbYB-nU

The movie is a typical Peter Jackson film.  The action is well paced.  There are ample battles and tense moments throughout. Yet even during some of the battle scenes, Jackson manages to inject bits of humor to break the tension. I often wonder what Tolkien would think if we could bring him into our time to see how Jackson and others have interpreted him.

There is a wonderful bit of dialogue near the end of the movie that, for me, echoes the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians.  Throughout the movie there is pushback from the road- weary dwarves trying to make it back to their home.  They wonder aloud why Gandalf the Grey, skillfully played by Ian McKellan, has invited this hobbit from the shire–this creature who craves his books and armchair and avoids adventures at all cost—to join the band of battle-hardened dwarves on this quest to try and reclaim their home.

When you see the movie, listen for the echo.  Here is what Paul said:

Look carefully at your call, brothers and sisters.  By human standards, not many of you are deemed to be wise. Not many are considered powerful.  Not many of you come from royalty, right?  But celebrate this: God selected the world’s foolish to bring shame upon those who think they are wise; likewise, He selected the world’s weak to bring disgrace upon those who think they are strong.  God selected the common and the castoff, whatever lacks status, so He could invalidate the claims of those who think those things are significant. (1 Corinthians 1:26-18, The Voice)

For me and I’m sure many others, The Hobbit  and Lord of the Rings trilogy is a great story that reflects the reality Paul celebrates in his letter.  No one would ever consider the hobbits adventure-worthy creatures. They are not wise.  They are not powerful.  Royal blood does not flow in their hobbit veins.  They are the foolish and the weak. Yet they are chosen, indeed destined, for greatness in a story which sees good triumph over evil in Middle Earth. Yet evil, true evil, is not defeated easily.  It takes great sacrifice to overcome the powers that rule the darkness. Tolkien understood Paul.  I’m sure of it.  He understood the central Christian convictions that ought to animate more of our literature and films.